Balloons can be a wonderful addition to any celebration. The vibrant colors, array of shapes, and range of sizes can bring a unique flare to an event, when properly inflated, designed, built, and handled. There are even people who have figured out how to entertain audiences using balloons!
There is a growing trend, however, with balloons, and their usage, that is starting to create some problem—both within America, and throughout the rest of the world. That trend is helium-filled balloon releases, and it is drawing the attention of many groups, such as environmental groups and local government agencies.
At first glance, balloon releases (as we will refer to them for the remainder of this article) appear to be a harmless way to celebrate the memory of a lost loved one, commemorate the joining of two individuals in marriage, or even simply cleaning up the party by releasing the balloons instead of popping them.
As innocent as they appear to be on the surface, there are, in fact, quite a few issues that arise from the releasing of helium-filled balloons into the atmosphere.
One of the most obvious effects of balloon releases is the litter that it becomes once it begins to deflate. Balloons, on average, travel up into the atmosphere to anywhere between 10 and 20 miles high.
At that point, the helium inside the balloon finally becomes thicker than the atmosphere, the balloon bursts, and falls back to the earth. The problem, though, is that the balloon does not come back down in the same location. Balloons that are successful in ascending that high into the atmosphere oftentimes travel a few thousand miles. What an incredible journey for such a small piece of latex!
Once the balloon pops, it falls back to the earth in the form of litter. Though the majority of latex balloons are naturally produced from the sap of “rubber trees” and 100% biodegradable, mylar and plastic balloons are not. Even a latex balloon takes anywhere between 6 months and 4 years to fully decompose. The bigger problem with latex balloons, however, is that they are often accompanied by a ribbon/ string, which a person will use to either weight the balloon down, or to easily hold onto it. The ribbon is nearly always made of a form of plastic and does not biodegrade.
In 2018, over 23 million pounds of trash were cleaned up along beaches worldwide. Though balloons were not near the top of list, enough of them were recovered to make 17.5 people fly; which is an incredible amount of latex! In 2012, the state of California spent $428 million cleaning up trash from its beaches. That’s a lot of money to be spent on beach garbage!
Another problem with the litter that is created by balloon waste is the fact that it can harm the animals of the planet. Birds, fish, and land animals can become entangled in the ribbon waste, or even choke to death on a piece of latex. It can be hard to distinguish between balloon remnants and plastics, but it is estimated that approximately 100,000 animals die each year from plastic ingestion. Again, we cannot confirm how many, if any, of these animals actually died from balloon ingestion, since balloons are oftentimes unambiguously lumped into the category of plastics; but the fact remains that animals can become seriously injured, or even die, from the litter that we leave behind with our balloons.
There are two other types of balloons, which are used in great quantities and could cause environmental trouble. They are: plastic balloons and mylar (foil) balloons. Plastic balloons, for the most part, have the same effects on the environment as latex balloons, except they do not biodegrade. Mylar balloons are made from metal and also are not very biodegradable.
One of the most common issues with mylar balloons is the power outages that they can easily create power outages when they are released near, and become entangled in, power lines, leaving people without power for quite some time.
In Southeast California, mylar balloons account for over 1,100 power outages each year. The problem is so bad there that the city of Malibu, California voted to ban the sale of all balloons within city limits back in 2018. The ruling was overturned upon appeal, when members of the Balloon Council and Pro-Environment Balloon Alliance attended a City Council meeting and advocated for balloons, educating the City Council on the facts behind balloons.
So how can we do our part to help our environment, while simultaneously enjoying the beauty and splendor of balloons? The first thing that we can do is to ensure that every time we are handling helium-filled balloons, they are weighted down—either by a balloon weight, tied to a chair, or any number of creative ways to ensure that they are properly secured to a weighted surface. We can ensure that we utilize proper disposal techniques by doing what we in the balloon industry refer to as “pin it and bin it;” meaning that we pop it with a pin and throw it in a trash bin. This ensures that the items that brought us so much joy do not end up as litter.
Balloon releases, though beautiful and fun, can having devastating effects. These effects include: creating litter, harming wildlife, and causing power outages. We can mitigate these effects by utilizing proper usage and disposal techniques, such as weighing down helium balloons, and properly disposing of them in the trash bin.
For more information on balloons and balloon releases, please visit balloonfacts.org